Orwell and the rope; a brief history of watching people die.

The BBC in their infinite wisdom have decided to celebrate the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s death (an arbitrary anniversary if ever there was one). Amongst their offerings are a dramatisation of his allegorical, dystopian masterpiece 1984 (originally published June 1949 so why not celebrate the 70th anniversary of that last year?). Of all Orwell’s works, and I am a big fan, 1984 is pretty low down on my list. I much prefer his short essays such as England Your England and Decline of the English Murder. But there is one that has a particularly special place in my heart, A Hanging.

George Orwell c. 1940. Image by Cassowary Colorizations. CC licence.

I first read A Hanging hunkered down in a ski-lift attendant’s shack on Grouse Mountain in Vancouver. I was doing my best to avoid the cries of the public as they consistently fell over, whilst being pulled along by a hessian cord in perpetual motion. It only strikes me now that their helpless cries whilst dangling from a rope were strangely apt, given the reading material. As with Orwell’s other essays it gripped me from the off and it ignited something in me that was to ultimately bring me back to study the subject for my doctorate. Namely the question of why people went to witness someone die.

The essay details Orwell’s experience of seeing ‘a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes’ hanged whilst he was on military duty in Burma. In documenting his experiences of watching an execution Orwell was joining a long line of elite commentators, drawn to this spectacle of punishment. Earlier scholars have argued that the execution was something of a ‘limit experience…a confrontation with death which mirrored the observer’s own apprehensions of mortality.’[1] Certainly Alexander Smith believed this to be the case when he reflected on an execution he watched just North of Glasgow.[2] 

‘It is some obscure desire of this kind, a movement of curiosity not altogether ignoble, but in some degree pathetic; some rude attempt of the imagination to wrest from the death of the criminal information as to the great secret in which each is profoundly interested, which draws around the scaffold people from the country harvest-fields, and from the streets and alleys of the town. Nothing interests men so much as death. Age cannot wither it, nor custom stale it.’

Alexander Smith – A Lark’s Flight.

Smith’s reflections were written some twenty years after the execution, but he noted that the ‘impression then made remains fresh to this day.’

Perhaps the most notable execution attendees in the nineteenth century were Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. They were famously both in attendance at the execution of Francis Courvoisier, 1841, and their accounts markedly differ. Dickens, watching from a high window overlooking the scene, saw in the crowd ‘nothing but ribaldry…and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes.’[3] Whilst Thackeray, in amongst the throng, saw an ‘extraordinarily gentle and goodhumoured’ collection of people.[4] It is Dickens’ lofty and coruscating view, in line with the papers of the time, that has come to colour our understanding of the crowd far more than Thackeray’s. There is an overwhelming hypocrisy in Dickens’ accounts of the crowd in which he saw ‘not one token’ of goodness in them. Perhaps if he had turned his coruscating lens on himself, he may well have not liked what he saw.

So why did people attend? Although a public execution may seem unthinkable to us now, although as regular readers know I would question the validity of this sentiment, it is important to know the intended purpose of such an event. It is only by getting to grips with the intention of this brutal punishment that we can begin to understand the motivations behind attendance in a more nuanced way.

Certainly, we ‘moderns’ are not alone in our apparent disgust at such spectacles. There had long been critics of such spectacles most notably Cesare Beccaria, seen by some as the ‘father of the abolitionist movement.’[5] In his treatise, originally published in Italy in 1764, he reasoned that ‘the punishment of death is pernicious to society.’ In public displays of violence, so redolent on the gallows, Beccaria saw only hypocrisy and the potential for a brutalising effect on the onlookers.

Is it not absurd, that the laws, which detect and punish homicide, should, in order to prevent murder, publicly commit murder themselves?[6]

Far from championing the physical punishment of the criminal body, Beccaria argued that

‘The end of punishment, therefore, is no other, than to prevent others from committing the like offence. Such punishments, therefore, and such a mode of inflicting them, ought to be chosen, as will make strongest and most lasting impressions on the minds of others, with the least torment to the body of the criminal.’[7]

To get an idea of how at odds Beccaria’s sentiment was with English law at the time, one need only look at the Murder Act 1752. Introduced for ‘better preventing the horrid crime of murder’ the Act effectively established a ‘systematic juridical procedures for the execution and…post-mortem punishment of convicted murderers’. [8] In effect, from henceforth, hanging alone was not enough for punishing the crime of murder. The additional punishments available were dissection by surgeon or hanging in chains, both intended as a ‘further mark of terror and infamy.’[9]

The life-size model of William Jobling, the last man to be gibbeted in England.
The life-size replica of William Jobling, the second last man to be gibbeted in England. Recently auctioned.

By the end of the eighteenth-century though reformist calls for the removal of public punishment were growing. This would ultimately lead to certain changes being adopted, such as the move in London from the open land of Tyburn to executions taking place on the exterior walls of Newgate Prison. Some scholars have argued that these moves, adopted sporadically across the country, were the result of a late eighteenth-century dissatisfaction with the ‘didactic effectiveness’ of the public execution. In essence, if there was a lesson to be learned from the gallows, it was not the one that the crowd were taking away. Wilf posited that this dissatisfaction led to a period of experimentation in which the authorities attempted to ‘construct an aesthetic theory of punishment’. Put simply, this meant that a spectacle ‘designed to bombard the visual senses’ became one that ‘sought to influence the imagination.’[10]

This notion of a hidden spectacle had deep historical roots. Novelist, playwright and magistrate Henry Fielding had promoted the merits of private execution in the mid-eighteenth century. Citing the murder of the King, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Fielding reasoned that ‘A murder behind the scenes, if the poet knows how to manage it, will affect the audience with greater terror than if it was acted before their eyes.’[11] The great problem with the private execution though was that justice needed to be seen to be believed. In essence, the legitimacy of state power relied on an element of public witness. Foucault captured this sentiment,

Not only must people know, they must see with their own eyes. Because they must to a certain extent take part in it. The right to be witnesses was one that they possessed and claimed; a hidden execution was a privileged execution, and in such cases it was often suspected that it had not taken place with its customary severity.

– M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, (1977), p. 58.

Despite the efforts of the authorities, the same problems identified in the late c18th were arguably even more apparent in the early to mid c19th. A dramatic reduction in the number of capital offences had led to a concomitant drop in the number of executions. As a result, these were now increasingly rare events and as such drew bigger crowds and the old problem of what message was being received once again became a present concern.[12] Eventually the problem of the crowd proved too great for the authorities and from 1868 onwards they were removed from the equation, by The Capital Punishment Amendment Act which transferred the punishment of execution to behind the prison wall. This was arguably one of the final acts in what David Garland noted as a fundamental transfer in penal policy from the ‘corporal’ to the ‘carceral’.[13] As Foucault concluded, ‘the fact remains that a few decades saw the disappearance of… the body as the major target of penal repression.’[14]

The result was an execution that took place behind closed doors with only a select group of representatives of the public, or in most cases the press, there to be a check on the state. The intention was no longer the brutal punishment of the criminal body but the certainty of the law in action. In as much the notion of what a ‘witness’ was needed for changed.  This is most apparent in the modern American system where ‘there is so little to see…, particularly when the method is lethal injection, that witnesses seem beside the point, which often is how they are treated.’[15]

So there you have it. If you have ever wondered why some of our greatest writers and vast numbers of the general public were drawn to attend an execution or indeed why they were ever public then hopefully you have a better idea now. If this article has interested you then I might be so bold to suggest that you may have even attended one yourself.

On a related note.

*For regular followers of the blog you may remember that I ran a conference in 2018 (for a proper anniversary) to mark 150 years since the end of public execution. I am pleased to say that an edited collection has grown out of that conference and is being delivered to the publishers in 11 days time, hopefully for publication in 2020. I will cover it in more detail in the weeks to come but the idea of witness is a key focus of several chapters.

Distractions 1: Older and Wider.

Jenny Eclair and Judith Holder - Older and Wider podcast
Jenny Eclair and Judith Holder – Older and Wider podcast

Podcasts carried me through the PhD,  the more lighthearted the better – god knows a man needs a break from 24/7 capital punishment. There were many I could pick from but I found this one right at the tail end of my, post-viva, thesis corrections period so it feels the most current. Now, I’m pretty certain Jenny Eclair and Judith Holder didn’t have me in mind as their target demographic when they launched the Older and Wider podcast. But, whether they like it or not, I am a big fan.  In my former years as a Development Researcher for TV I worked down the corridor from Judith (she was responsible for, amongst other things, the Grumpy Old Women series). So when I heard, via Jenny Eclair on Richard Herring’s podcast, another of my regular haunts, that she was doing a podcast with Judith I had to tune in. Ostensibly it is two women ‘passed their prime’ (their words not mine, before you shoot the messenger) interviewing interesting guests, but it is the chats at the beginning between Judith and Jenny that interest me most. Like all good podcasts, it’s all about chemistry and there’s something really satisfying about these two old friends gently ribbing each other. My only complaint is Judith laughs more heartily in one episode than I ever heard her in the whole time I knew her – I put it down to the stress of TV (of course it could of just been how dull I was).  They also have some great interviews with fascinating guests, I just stumbled on an episode with the astonishing Wendy Mitchell – an early onset dementia sufferer who refused to let her many debilitating symptoms ruin her life. Also, as a former drummer, I always get an extra laugh from their appauling attempts (self-acknowledged) to clap in time with their theme tune. 

Think of this podcast as a much needed warm brew, by a lit fire on a very cold day. 

Apple | Podbean | Castbox

Older & Wider podcast


[1] John Tulloch, ‘The Privatising of Pain: Lincoln Newspapers, “Mediated Publicness” and the End of Public Execution’, Journalism Studies 7, no. 3 (June 2006): p. 438.

[2] Smith’s personal reflection referred to the execution of Doolan and Redding, in 1841. A broadside from the execution survives – ‘Execution of Doolan and Redding’ 1841   shelfmark: APS.4.200.05. Available Online at The Word on the Street Archive

[3] https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/letters-from-charles-dickens-on-capital-punishment-23-february—16-march-1846

[4] Thackeray, Going to See a Man Hanged, http://emoglen.law.columbia.edu/twiki/pub/AmLegalHist/AngelaProject/Thackeray_Going_To_See_A_Man_Hanged.pdf

[5] John D Bessler, ‘Revisiting Beccaria’s Vision: The Enlightenment, America’s Death Penalty, and the Abolition Movement’, Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy 4, no. 2 (2009): 196.

[6] Cesare marchese di Beccaria, An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, [1764] The Online Library of Liberty’, 2011, p. 53.

[7] Ibid., p. 26.

[8] Tarlow and Battell-Lowman, Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse, p. 87.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513543/ For more detail on this period of punishment see the website www.criminalcorpses.com (made by me and based on the research from the fantastic Harnessing of the Power of the Criminal Corpse Project  – University of Leicester & Wellcome Trust).

[9] 1752 Murder Act. See the timeline of the Act here.

[10] Steven Wilf, ‘Imagining Justice: Aesthetics and Public Executions in Late Eighteenth-Century England’, Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 5, no. 1 (2013): 53.

[11] Henry Fielding and Arthur Murphy, The Works of Henry Fielding, Esq: With the Life of the Author. In Twelve Volumes. A New Edition. To Which Is Now First Added, The Fathers; Or, The Good-Natured Man (W. Strahan, J. Rivington and Sons, 1783), 383, https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=aLodAAAAMAAJ.

[12] David Blackbourn, ‘Axeman as Ballroom Dancer’, London Review of Books, 17 July 1997, https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v19/n14/david-blackbourn/axeman-as-ballroom-dancer.

[13] David Garland, ‘The Problem of the Body in Modern State Punishment’, Social Research, Vol. 78: no. 3. (Fall, 2011), p.767.

[14] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, (1977), p. 56.

[16] Robert Johnson, Sandra McGunigall-Smith, and Claire Callahan, ‘Can I Get a Witness? Thoughts on Witnessing Executions’, The Prison Journal 93, no. 1 (1 March 2013): 14, https://doi.org/10.1177/0032885512467311.

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